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tv   Susan Orlean The Library Book  CSPAN  January 20, 2019 4:00pm-5:01pm EST

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quite an epic life. >> thank you for your time. >> keep on eye out for more interviews from the national press club's book fair to air in the near future. ... [inaudible conversations] good evening everyone. i am winston cap the sheridan dean and i'm very happy to welcome all of you here to this wonderful george peabody
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library i want to knowledge of the support of the friends of the library we have a number of our colleagues here tonight and it's an organization that has existed for almost 90 years now. and loves to support things exactly like this. all libraries are grateful to donors and people who really care about library. what more important place to be. as we call this. to be partnering here with the pratt library for this event. we had have an along intertwined connection. the george peabody library was opened in 1878 this a few years before the library system was established.
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it was given responsibility to this collection and remains responsible for about 16 years. when they took responsibility for this library. while it's a very old library in baltimore. it's actually one of the newest libraries that belongs here. we had been able to head partnership with others over the years. he is still a public library that's open every day. and that's only different from other kinds of public libraries and that it's not circulating. it's like a research library in that sense. very important that people know it as a is a library for the people. one reason we were particularly excited to be hosting this event tonight. the whole subject of the library book is a special
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interest to us. the way in which it was constructed. it was very concerned about fire and libraries. there is a cast iron building one of the most interesting things about it is that it is actually used for teaching our students in civil engineering who come here not to use any of the books but to to see how it was constructed. the local people from baltimore who have been responsible for building those ships. you see, one of the reasons the architect was particularly interested in worrying about fire was that these that we now see. they were gas back in that day. one of the things that is interesting in the architecture it was put down behind all of the columns as a very important method back in
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those days. you can see why we have a particular interest in your book. i want to hear more about what happened in los angeles but also to think about what's wonderful here. we've just finished this project. here we are 140 years later. so happy to welcome all of you here this evening i'm happy to turn over the podium to heidi daniels. thank you winston. good evening everyone. i am so grateful for all of you for being here this evening. we are very excited to be cohosting this event with our partners.
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inside the gorgeous peabody library and before i even moved to baltimore over a year ago. i walked into the library to look at it because it is known nationwide if not internationally also many of you who support the pratt library throughout the year. programs like this would not be possible without your support. we are just a couple of blocks away from our historic central library central library which is currently undergoing hundred $15 million renovation. this time next year we will be excited to welcome all of you back during our grand reopening celebration and we did just get a brand-new fire per suppression system also. we excited to be here for a very special writers's live presentation. they had been a staff writer since the early 19 '90s she is the best selling author of a number of wonderful books it
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was there. and earning an oscar nominee for it. many of us in the room because of its topic. the historic fire. back in 1986. it also offers in my opinion a very realistic look into the behind-the-scenes i was particularly grateful for. as i note my colleagues throughout the country are. the retelling of the catastrophic event they reinforce how much they mean to people all across the country. and i think that is something that all of us can relate to. it's my honor to introduce you susan orlean [applause].
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thank you all for being here tonight. and thank you to both the pratt and the peabody library for welcoming me here. i have to say i like this place so much and i can only. i had 30 more cities on my book to her that would be a lot of e-mails saying i had decided not to leave baltimore. i think that's not a bad idea
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i grew up in libraries or at least it feels that way. i was raised in the suburbs of cleveland just a few blocks from the bertram would branch. of the public library system. throughout my childhood starting when i was very young i went there several times a week with my mother on those visits my mother's and i walked in together as a pastor the door we headed to our favorite section. it might have been the first place i was ever given autonomy. even when i was maybe four or five years old i was allowed to have off on my own. and then after a while my mother and i reunited at the checkout counter with our fines. together we waited as the library at the counter pulled out the date card and stamped it with the checkout machine. printing a crooked date. underneath the score of previous record due dates that
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belonged to other people other times. our visits to the library were never long enough for me the place was so bountiful i love wandering around the bookshelf scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. those visits were dreamy the promise i would leave richer than i have arrived. it wasn't like going to a store with my mom which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what i wanted and what my mother was willing to buy me. in the library i could have anything i wanted. after we checked out i loved being in the car and having all of the books that we have gotten started on my lap. their covers sticking a bit to my thighs. it was such a thrill leaving a place with the things things you have not paid for.
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such a thrill anticipating the new books that we would read on the right how my mother and i talked about the order in which we were going to read our books. and how long until they have to be returned. we decided how to pace ourselves. through this time of grace. until the books were due. we both thought all of the librarians for a few minutes we would discuss their beauty. my mother than also mentioned that if she could have chosen any profession and all she would have chosen to be a librarian. and the car would grow silent for a moment as a both considered what an amazing thing that would have been. when i was older i usually walked to the library myself looking back as many books as i could carry. i did so goes my mother it
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would be as enchanted as it was when i was small. my mother and i still went together now and then. exactly as it did when i was a child with all of the same beats and pauses in comments. the same perfect pens of rhythm we followed 70 times before. when i miss my mothers these days now that she's gone i like to picture us in the car together going for one more magnificent trip. see mick how did mac how did i find myself writing a book about a library this is a question i actually ask myself quite a bit while i was working on the book not just preliminarily but midway through the six years that i spent working on it how to end
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up writing a book about a library. there is sort of an interesting path to how it happened. i'm very curious about a certain kind of story and that is the story that is hiding in plain sight. the institution or the person or the event or the environment that seems so familiar and yet when i look at it closely i realize that i know nothing about it. in the process of writing about a place like that is like trying the back off of a watch or a clock. and seemed not the simplicity of the watch face but the very complex set of gears behind it. one day i was in a library and i thought to myself how the hell do these things work. i know in the books get here somehow but how do they get
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here. and who decides what books they are. a place that felt so familiar i realized i knew nothing about it. i love libraries. so thinking about them was very pleasurable. so i have this in my head when in a be interesting to write about the gear and the year in the life of a library. that kind of rattled around in my brain a little bit. i was concerned that there was no narrative momentum what was the book about the size the rather broad notion of looking at the library. it just felt like there needed to be a spine to connect it. i put it out of my head. i was perfectly happy not to have a book to write.
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i enjoyed not having a deadline looming over me. i have just just moved to los angeles have an assignment to interview someone who worked for the city. i suggested that he interviewed a garbageman he countered by suggesting and that he interviewed a librarian. i actually just wanted to make a note of how completely unlikely that situation as. you would sort of a imagine it the other way around. but that's my kid. i thought all that sounds great. and we were so new to los angeles that i did not know where the nearest branch library was. i headed over there with them. the first thing in the begin hitting me was that this was about exactly the distance that the branch was from my
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childhood home. there was just this exact amount of time until we arrived. when we walked in i should set this up by saying these libraries were not built in the same era. i don't really look like each other. i walked in the door with my child it was as if i had been projected back to my own childhood everything about the smell of the library and the sound of the library the quality of the air in the library reminded me so precisely of the branch library i had visited so often. being there with my child and really repeating exactly that experience of being taken by my mom to the library i was so
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struck that for a moment i could barely move. it was that pure of an experience. that absolute of a reminder so once again hit me why do libraries and mean so much. why am i having such a profound sense of memory in this place. and i went to a lot of places with my mom but it was a library that felt so special and that felt so freighted with meaning in emotion. and again, i thought i love this idea of writing about this. what is a story. soon after that trip with my son. i gave a talk to the friends of the los angeles library and as a thank you i was offered a
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two or of the downtown branch the central branch of the la library. i was quite delighted because among other things i did not know there was a downtown in los angeles. let alone a library. and downtown. and i said yes, i was very eager. i went down without any expectation of what it would look like and the building is a 1920s fantasia in the midst of all of the skyscrapers in downtown la. it's really a stunning building in a way that is very different from this building. but equally arresting. i was given a tour and we were walking around and i felt like the walls were talking to me. every piece of art. every mentioned at the
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architect and the patrons. it all felt like this place was still alive. it was just speaking to me as a story. at one point we were in the fiction department he held it up and took a deep with. i guess it's an la thing. he said you know you can still smell the smoke and some of them. i was really baffled and i said he let people smoke in the library he said that the big fire the fire of 1986. close a library for seven years. he moved on to show me something else. what are you talking about.
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i went home that night i know that i was writing this book. the story was just irresistible the combination of having this emotional yearning to learn about libraries and write about why they are so uniquely meaningful to us coupled with this amazing a narrative of the fire i want to preface it with a few staggering bits of data it was the largest library of fire in the history of the united states. and until very recently was a log just structural fire in the history of los angeles. it burned for seven and a half
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hours. and reached 2500 degrees. i know this is horrible to say but when the building was built it was thought to be fireproof. i know your fire suppression today is far better than it was in 1926 it was believed to be particularly fireproof. the firefighters did not think they were get a going to be able to save the building. because what would a fire like more than to be raging inside a library. i'm just cannot read a little bit at first, and the smoke in the fiction stacks was as pale as onion skin. and then it deepened to dove gray. then it turned black. it round wound around curling and lazy ringlets.
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it gathered into soft puffs. suddenly sharp fingers of the flame more flames erupted. the heat built. the temperature reached 451 degrees and the books begin smoldering. their there covers burst like popcorn. and then sprang away from their bindings. a ream of city scraps soaring on the updraft. consuming as it traveled. it reached for the cookbooks. they rested. the fire scrambled to the sixth tier of the stacks and then to the seventh. every book in its path bloomed with flames. at the seventh tear the fire banged into the concrete ceiling deborah backed and mushroom downed again to the
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sixth tier. it poked around looking for more air and fuel on the sixth tier flames carted against the walls of the stacks. and then decided to move laterally the fire burned through six tear shelves. it connected the northeast stacks to the northwest stacks. he directed into the catwalk. and hurried along until it reached the pad collection. stored in the northwest stacks. they were so thick that they resisted. but the heat gathered until at last they smoked, flared and crackled and dematerialized. wind gust filled the vacuum made by the fire.
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hot air is saturated the walls. the floor began to fracture. the spiderweb of the hot cracks appeared ceiling beams the temperature reached 900 degrees. they range from gray to white as if illuminated from within. soon listening and nearly molten they glowed cherry red and then they twisted and slumped pitching their books into the fire. there is nothing quite as disturbing as the burning of books.
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they burn books next they burn men. while i didn't write about this in the book. there is probably no culture in which the books have been burned and that wasn't followed by the destruction of people. they are closer to us than other material objects. they are an extension of our own minds. it's how we keep forever everything. in a way it functions like an auxiliary brain. it is like a giant brain.
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it's kind of a horrible thought that we are sitting inside here. there is something about that quality. our thoughts that make books and libraries feel so close to us. and it makes the burning of them feel so violent. i can speak from experience because in the course of working in this book i decided to burn a book because i felt like i would try to figure it is this as awful as it seems. and i can tell you is for the same reason that books and
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libraries are an extension of our soul. when someone dies rather than saying they die the expression is that his or her library has burned. and when i heard that expression i thought that's exactly why this feels so personal. this is so connected to who we are. and by the same token each of us has in our own memories our own personal library volumes of the experiences of our life so it's both a cultural memory and a personal memory.
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and it was interesting when i started working on this book i mentioned it to my mother and like all mothers she took credit for it and said i think i was the one who first took you to the library. in the course of working on this book. i wrote the book all of these memories that we share. our whole lifetime of memories are shared. a lot of wrote drove me in the writing of this book was feeling and that a book can preserve for eternity memory. in that by writing the story of traveling.
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one of the things that was a great pleasure for me was realizing that they are very organized people. and they keep track of a lot of information. when i dove into writing the book. this is the fantasy of every writer. at some point along the way. now that i think about it i think there are some boxes it is a fascinating history. as is the history of mold most
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libraries. they have a particularly interesting one. it is a magnet for strange and interesting people. included mac in the very early days when ellie was really a little cow town. he and at some point. one of the library and said to me now that i think about it there are some boxes. i almost started crying.
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i want to read another little section for you. thousands and thousands of people use of the library to simply answer questions whatever those questions may be la had answering network otherwise known as skin and they just fielded phone calls all day. actually i learned an interesting fact was that they were trying to figure out why they got so busy at the end of the day. they would call for every
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reason under the sun i decide to read to you. and they read like synopses of a play. each one seemed like a snapshot. hey let's just call the library. patron call wanted to know how to say the necktie is in the bathtub in swedish. he is a heavy drinker. they want to know origin of the expression unable to provide answers. whether it is necessary to rise if national anthem is played on radio or
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television. only do what is natural and unforced. one does not rise while bathing eating or patron as a writer in hebrew. wanted to create upon. we could not find the term but the word copulate is mid- zion which helped her make upon. it's an actor who has to person ate the eight the secret police. found a hungarian speaking who spoke to him. there inquiring whether it is after street or there is a real street named della street. this is my favorite. the patron ask for help writing inscription in
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father's tombstone. i guess you can get anything you want in the library. this is a wonderful moment in time one of the wonderful things about libraries is they really show us what a community in a society can do well. that includes everyone. i really had no idea how political a book i was writing until i was midway through. and thought this is an opportunity to celebrate something pretty amazing. these are pretty amazing places. ones that are inclusive. and really open their doors to everyone.
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places were information is made free and increasingly places where so many other forms of knowledge and information are shared with the public. i think we all deserve it to congratulate ourselves that we have created these institutions and sustained them. in a rather dark moment in our history in a sense of what the public can mean. i found it very encouraging to think about libraries and think about how pure their mission is and how they have maintained it. over this very long stretch of time. it's wonderful to be celebrating something public rather than complaining about it. i want to read a little bit more from the end of the book. i went to the library late one date just before closing time.
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when the light outside was already dusty in the place was sleepy and slow. almost like a secret place. in it so enveloping that you have no sense of the world outside. i went down to the history department and then around from department to department just scrolling through and across the beautiful harel hollow rotunda a gorgeous surprise every time you entered it. as i made my way a library is a good place to soften solitude a place were you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years. even when you're all alone.
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the library is a whispering post you don't need to take a book off a shelf to know that there is a voice inside the is waiting to speak to you. and behind that was something and someone that truly believed if he or she spoke someone would listen. and was that affirmation that always thrilled me. and even the most honest and most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage the writers believed that someone would find his or her book important to read. see mac i was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is. and how necessary and full of hope it is to collect these books in many and manuscripts and preserve them. it declares that all of the stories matter and so does
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every effort to create something that connects us to one another. into our past into what is still to come. i realized that this entire time learning about the library i had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-standing story to create something that endured to be alive somehow as long as someone would read my book was what drove me on. story after story. it was a lifeline in a passion i way to way to understand who i was. i thought about my mother who died when i was halfway done with this book. and i knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library. and i was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second. for a time that i was young. and she was in the moment with the years ahead of her. and she was beaming at me i
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knew that if we have come here together. to this enchanted place and all of the stories in the world for us to have she would've reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world she would have been a librarian. i looked around the room at the few people scattered there. some were leaning into books in a few were just resting having a private moment in a public place i felt voided by being here. this is why i wanted to write this book to tell about a place i love that doesn't belong to me but feels like it is mine. and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. all of the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library simple and unspoken promise. here i am please tell me your story.
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here is my story. please listen. thank you. [applause]. thank you so much. i appreciate it so much. i had left time for questions. i think we will try to do them on the mic if possible for the benefit of c-span is recording. if it was built by peabody it
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was also famous at the time. is not the most important one. there is not a question that i'm just i'm just saying you made me think of this. and that is one of the things that book writers to i also want to say so many libraries have great philanthropists behind them. i just want to make a shout out for the public that votes to fund these places and did
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not always and not every time. but pretty quick consistently people are willing to say yes i will pay for the library. that is a generosity in the sense of community spirit that is really wonderful. it is great to have these great figures it's interesting. andrew carnegie when he began his program of library building had as a requirement that he would build the building but the municipality had to support it. from the beginning i'm doing this if the people will support it.
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i am a huge paean of your writing. i was wondering you mentioned at one point he decided to burn a book. to see what it was like. i was curious what book that was. the fact is it was a very difficult choice. and then i thought i can't do that. can do that. it's awful. and i thought i look for a book i like. i can't do that. i can do this. is just too much of a taboo. should i tell you what i burned or should you be surprised.
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it's in the book. i will let you enjoy the experience of learning it. i'm trying to compress this whole book into my presentation. and failed to mention a rather significant in part of my curiosity was thinking who could burn a library and what was that even why is burning a book something that i find something so difficult to do. it kept reminding me of this somewhat human quality that books have. i think i picked a good one to burn. i immediately went out and bought another copy.
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it was just too weird. we have the privilege of visiting the library at trinity college. i think that would be a really fun trip.
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that's what i'm telling people now. because of their great age. they have a kind of historic presence that american libraries i happen to think it's pretty great. my husband just gave me this gorgeous book.
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i think it was one of the few american libraries that was in it. i was thrilled that it was coming here. that there weren't more american libraries in the book. there are a lot of italianate libraries. italian libraries. and they are amazing. the guy who wrote it is italian. my question relates to the last question and comments. i'm wondering whether you would be willing to undertake the obligation of looking at libraries around the country in providing your own impression as to what is the best that we have to offer. i thing about baltimore and all of the problems it has as a city which doesn't do enough to express the pride of the great library. i think we have some of the best libraries in the country. we think about it as a think
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about cities and where we should visit. and what's to be seen. we think about rarely do we ever measure how wonderful and beautiful the libraries are. i'm not a librarian i'm not library expert. i would have a civilian response to what a library is like. for many cities it is something that there ought to be a huge amount of pride associated with it. they also have lots of problems that they deal with. it's not an un- allied feeling of joy they are complicated places with issues that are in some cases intractable.
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i personally believe that we are on the brink of a real reimburse of libraries. as more more people work at home. they'll be looking at public spaces to enjoy. the entire generation of people under 30. probably won't work in offices. i don't know if this is true in baltimore but in la you can't get a seat in a starbucks. i think they will be rediscovered as the kind of original co- working space i discovered after i was
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spending money on a co- working space. why am i paying all that money for the co- working space. i do think it's a wonderful moment in the history of libraries and a moment when they can step into this new role as being community centers places and hubs of knowledge and inner teammate. the rediscovery of that value i feel like it's imminent and happening. the la public library. the number of visits is way up. i think that's part of it. as they are revitalized. it's also benefiting the downtown branches of libraries which is wonderful.
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i see as quite promising. i had two questions really. the gentleman over here mentioned philanthropy. were they involved and it was an initial construction of the library or the seven year reconstruction seven-year reconstruction and the second question is what prompted you to move to los angeles. i will work backwards because i moved to los angeles. my husband was it have me thinking it would be a lovely interlude. it was really a lark. our plan was to go for a year.
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to the point of the philanthropists in la. the answer is no. this is a very public library. there was a group of leading citizens who formed the library initially. there is no single -- single benefactor. there were no wealthy people. there were ranchers and farmers but there was before oil and the movie business. without any depth of wealth. it's always kind like many
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libraries on the east coast. they have a benefactor. that underwrote it. when the library burnt. the building itself was relatively unharmed. 700,000 damage. it was up to the city to raise the money. and to replace the books and at that point they wanted to and needed desperately to expand the library.
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to raise $10 million. at that time arco was the biggest company in la and they were the leading donors the getty foundation. not nearly as much as you would imagine. la does not had a great record of philanthropy and certainly in 1986 it was particularly wobbly. except for arco it was mcdonnell douglas and lockheed
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all of the really major corporate entities that were big donors are gone. it is an interesting time in the city on the philanthropic landscape. they didn't raise the money $10 million raised from the public. much of it in small donations. and then a few of these significant donations from these players. you realize when you're in california how different is and how young it is. and you don't have old families that have a long tradition of giving. it is a challenge for the city. >> do you have the mic back here. we are doing two more questions.
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you mentioned that 400,000 volumes were destroyed and 700,000 damaged how did do they determine which ones to replace out of those who make and did they just go one to one they didn't. and for one thing a lot of those books it was not possible to replace them. for instance the entire cookbook collection which was the largest in the united states it was all completely destroyed. a lot of those simply cannot be replaced. it wasn't possible to just run down a list and essentially order what was missing. they have to rebuild the collection.
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that was one of the aspects of the recovery of the library that is really kind of behind the scenes which is rebuilding a collection thinking what do we replace and what didn't we replace. that was another reason why it took so long to reopen the library. to replace or choose not to replace those 400,000 books. with the damaged books. they were frozen for six years and then went through a very elaborate process of being thawed and having the water expressed out of them. and then were analyzed as to whether they were there were quite a few and that 700,000 that did not end up back on the shelves. surprisingly quite a few did end up salvageable which is
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amazing. it's a largest single book recovery effort ever undertaken. and hopefully that will bring that and remain the case. and it won't ever be an event that is damaging. >> that was the question i was can ask. since i have the microphone that it would mentioned whether you have ever seen jefferson's library at the library of congress. because when the library was bought by the congress informed the foundation it was put in the capital and much of it burnt in the fire of the 1850s. there is an ongoing effort in this particular case to try to fight the exact copy of all of those that have gone missing. that might be of interest. one of the things i did in the book. was a recount the long history of library burning and it's
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actually quite terrifying and that of course is the fire and the library of congress. one of the biggest library fires. and one of those that is most devastating in terms of what is lost. the single biggest library fire as far as we know in the history of the world was a science library in russia that burned for 24 hours in part of the reason that it is so damaging is that rather than trying to do salvage and cover books and try to protect them from the water they simply parked fire trucks around the building. and let them run. for 24 hours until the fire went out. so probably as many books were ruined by the water as by the
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fire. an interesting point and as you will learn in the book. there was a reason that most of us never heard about the supplier in los angeles and i won't spoil it for you one of the only news organizations that covered it really actively when it happened and then at the time of the fire in russia there was a tiny mention that basically said there was a fire in the library. and the director was unavailable because of heart problems. and then he disappeared it was a very interesting commentary of news coverage.
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i think that was supposed to be the last question. i want to thank you for the wonderful walk him. the chance to be in this amazing place. and the warm reaction to the book. it means so much to me thank you. just a reminder that they are here selling books. and once again thank you all for being here with us. and thank you to winston and the sheraton peabody thank you. have a good evening. .. .. . >> bennard fajardo good afternoon everyone. thank you all for


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